Our Man In Canada
September 9th, 2002

Skeena Steelhead

From Fly Fishing British Columbia, distributed by Frank Amato Publications. Photos from the Great River Series, Skeena River, published Frank Amato Publications

Steelhead anglers the world over are drawn each fall to the rivers of British Columbia's justly famous Skeena watershed. Rivers such as the Kispiox, where the world record fly-caught steelhead (33 pounds) was taken in 1962, leave an indelible impression, but there are many more where steelhead in the 20-pound-plus range regularly come to the fly. Water such as the Zymoetz (Copper), Bulkey, Morice, Suskwa, Babine, Sustut and the mainstream Skeena itself provide unmatched fly fishing for steelhead in a range of ettings and river types, from small wadable streams through the huge flows that dwarf the angler.

Most of the fishing takes place during the popular prime time period between September and the end of October. Some rivers fish earlier in August and some will fish longer than October 31 if the weather is agreeable, but most journeying to Skeena steelhead waters do so in those two key months. The first frosts normally arrive about mid-September and by mid-October temperatures hover near or at freezing through the day. On high elevation rivers such as the Sustut and Babine, the freeze will set in even earlier. By the end of September snow is not uncommon, especially at higher elevations.

Skeena steelhead enter the mainstem river at Price Rupert as early as late June, and continue through early September, with the bulk of the run going through in mid-August. On average, it takes the fish from three to five weeks to journey from tidewater to the headwaters of their natal streams.

The Copper River near Terrace, a heavily glaciated stream, has steelhead from August through until the snows of late fall, or until the cold drives anglers from the river, usually in mid-to late October. Copper River steelhead are of a good average size, with some fish in the 20-plus-pound range.

The Kispiox River sees its first fish in late August, but the bulk of the run arrives later in September and October. Of all the Skeena watershed rivers, the Kispiox has a higher proportion of larger fish, with steelhead of 15 to 25 pounds quite common. Some of its fish reach 30 pounds and larger, so tis is definitely the river for those looking for huge fish. Its longstanding international reputation, coupled with easy access, means its pools and runs are often very crowded.

The Morice will fish through August and go into late October or later, depending on weather. This river holds a large number of small fish in the five-pound category. Fish of 20-pound weights are rare - a 15-pound steelhead from the Morice is considered a good fish.

The Morice flows into the Bulkley at Houston, so all ascending Morice River fish must first travel the Bulkley, which explains why the Bulkley fishes well in August, water conditions permitting.

The bulk of fish homing in on the Bulkley arrive through September and October. Bulkley fish are of a higher average size than Morice fish, with steelhead in the eight-to 12-pound range quite common and some chances of larger fish. The Bulkley's character makes it an excellent fly fishing river.

The Suskwa, entering the Bulkley upstream of Hazelton, does not have a big run of steelhead, but those entering the river are quite large, regularly pushing the scales over the 20-pound mark. Suskwa fish can be found in the river as early as mid-August. It is one of the Skeena's smaller tributaries and is best fished as it drops over a good rain.

The Babine fishes best from mid-September through October, but has some fish showing as early as late August. Aside from the Kispiox, the Babine has the next largest average-size steelhead, with many fish in the 20-plus-pound range and some going into the 30s.

The Sustut has some early fish running through August bound for the river's upper watershed. Fish migrating to those portions of the river below the Bear River confluence usually arrive through September and October. Although the run is not as large as other Skeena tributaries, the river has a good average size, with a reasonable number of fish weighing 20 pounds and better.

As the steelhead make their way up the Skeena, provided the mainstem is clear enough, there are fishing opportunities on some Skeena bars, mostly in the Kitwanga to Kispiox area, but even the reaches lower down towards Terrace produce steelhead as long as the river water is reasonable clear. Rain frequents this watershed during the fall, and it can be intense enough for all the rivers to go out. The Skeena is probably the last to go, it will also be the last to recover after a big storm. Anglers fortunate to be there at the right time will experience catching large fish in huge pieces of water - in itself a thrill.

A unique characteristic of Skeena watershed steelhead is their enthusiasm for rising to flies fished on or just below the surface in much lower water temperatures than elsewhere. River temperatures will vary through the season, but hover in the mid-to low 50s in the early part of the season, decreasing to about the mid-40s by mid-October. This varies considerably with elevation and during years will cold fall weather. The free-rising nature of Skeena steelhead may be explained by their multi-year fry-to-smolt residence in fresh water and the relatively short freshwater growing season. Every feeding opportunity is taken, including the late-hatching Diptera flies common to most streams, so Skeena fish imprint on surface fare early on. Whatever the reasons, fly fishers can consider themselves fortunate. There are few more thrilling experiences in steelhead fly fishing than presenting a fly on or just below the surface and having a fish rise and take that fly.

Even though the fish are eager to rise to a fly, the sunk line is still a staple technique. To be successful, flies and sinktips need to be matched to water depth, flow and color. Big flies between two and four inches long or even longer are required. Flies such as the gg-Sucking Leech, General Practitioner, Woolly Bugger or the popular Popsicle-type flies all work well. Usually the darker-toned wet flies produce better than brighter colors, but much of fly selection is based on personal preference.

The waked fly is one of the most thrilling techniques for taking steelhead on the surface and is quite effective on most Skeena system rivers. The technique is worth a try through water temperatures down to the mid-40s. Flies such as the Bomber, Muddler Minnow and Grease Liner, as well as newer flies of foam-body design will all produce. The choices are literally endless, but the important thing is that the fly leaves a wake as it comes across a run. Flies ranging in size from #8 through #2 are needed to cover the various water and light conditions.

The Skeena's free-rising steelhead also provide opportunities for the traditional dry fly technique. Any fly that floats well in sizes #8 through #4 is appropriate, but the patterns that wake well are a bonus as it is then possible to fish the two techniques on one drift - both dry and waked.

The floating line technique, where the fly is fished just under the surface on a floating line in a down-and-across cast, is a very popular method on many Skeena tributaries. Fly size, as well as the degree of dressing or sparseness, needs to be adjusted to match conditions such as water temperature, clarity, velocity and light conditions. Darker patterns seem to produce better than those of lighter tones. For glacial streams or those colored by rain a large Black GP or Woolly Bugger works well, especially in poor light. A variety of flies in #8 to #2 are needed to cover the wide variety of conditions. The Black Spey, Skunk, Woolly Worm and Doc Spratley are a few of the traditional flies, but there are myriad choices.

The nymph-type presentation is used mostly for skittish fish in low, clear water which is best not approached with the usual down-and-across cast. For example, when the water is low and clear in the Kispiox or the Upper Copper and the fish can be readily spotted, casting a fly upstream and letting it sink to near bottom often produces results when nothing else will. An egg-type pattern fished with a floating line and strike indicator works as well as anything.

Note: For more on the Skeena, see The Skeena River in our Great Rivers series.

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